You might not think of patents as a source for SEO trends, but they can help predict what big digital and technology companies are investing in for the future and extrapolate out future assumptions about consumer behavior in searching and navigating the internet across devices and platforms.
The U.S. moved to a first to file patent system in 2013 when the 2011 America Invents Act took full effect. This means the first inventor or company to file for a patent has priority to claim rights to that invention. Big tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and others file patents as soon as they reach the level necessary to meet the patentability criteria. Patents can be issued on designs (remember Apple v. Samsung that was all about the design), as well as what’s referred to as utility patents. Google’s current patent portfolio exceeds 13,000 patents in force and thousands more in process, Facebook’s is 2,099 in force and another thousand pending and Amazon’s is approximately 3,500 patents issued and nearly 1,000 pending. Microsoft tops out at close to 30,000 patents in force across its entities whereas Twitter is just close to passing the 1,000 mark in number of patents in force.
Software and algorithms on things like predictive behavior, advertising management or cataloging systems can be protected by business method patents, which protect a certain way of doing something. While there are more specific legal criteria to meet, it generally needs to be useful, novel, non-obvious and not an abstract idea or law of nature. When a patent is filed it essentially discloses publicly all the components of the invention, but offers a seventeen – twenty year (depending upon when and how it is filed) monopoly on that invention if granted. There are other ways to protect these inventions, but patents have generally been a popular means in the digital age to try to block others or have the ability to cross-license patents if a lawsuit erupts with a competitor. This means that companies that invest in software and algorithm based technology are likely to file patents and file them before they enter the marketplace. Once a patent is filed, it begins a multi-phased process and once it is processed, it is published and becomes public record. This is when you, me or anyone can access it, read it, analyze, it or reverse engineer it. If it is patented, you can’t use that exact patent or will face potential litigation, but you can certainly learn from it. There are thousands of patents published every week in the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Looking at them one by one may not tell you a lot, but when you aggregate patents and spot trends, it can actually help you see where the digital space is headed.
I study quarterly reports on patents published by the big technology and digital companies. I look for macro trends based upon what types of patents companies are filings and look for key themes. A few big themes in patents that have published in the last year (meaning they could be in process or issued) that impact digital include:
• Google’s Smart Home. Google published a series of patents related to its future smart home this year. Building upon its acquisition of the Nest thermostat, Google now has the ability to manage door access and package delivery, help you manage what’s in your refrigerator or even sensing your doorbell is ringing remotely. These smart home devices, software and predictive behavior patents indicate that in the future Google may know not just what you search and where you surf on the internet, but what you eat, when you eat it and who’s at your door. And, with their smart car, they’ll also know everywhere you go and serve up whatever information you need via their things, devices and wearables.
• The Race for the Remote. Media and technology companies alike are preparing for the inevitable evolution of how we all view content. Netflix is building out technology to drive the remote control. As is, Verizon with a context aware remote control application. Amazon has built out its own remote control device. Apple, Google and many others are all developing similar technology. If you want to compare and contrast how they are going about it, you can read through the series of patents filed by all of them. Will this digital remote replace search altogether? These companies will all be fighting for consumer favor in the future of controlling how you surf channels on a big or small screen.
• Predictive Behavior. The number of companies filing patents related to predicting behavior is far reaching. This year, Amazon has patents pending on context based utterance recognition, Disney on facilitating brand integration with online content and promotion based upon user activity, Netflix on determining audience engagement indices, and Turner Broadcasting with coupons based on automatic content recognition. Apple, Amazon, Google, eBay, Verizon, Yahoo, Comcast and AOL are all just a few of the companies with patent activity pending in the all-important predictive behavior category.
• Voice and Biometric recognition. A big trend has been voice and biometric recognition. While the big players like Amazon, Apple and Google were all in this category, so were a few surprising companies like Hulu with a patent for augmenting video with facial recognitions.
• Ad Inventory Management. Adobe has filed a patent for determining brand awareness before dismissing a video ad, Amazon for ad generation based upon external traffic, Apple for content downloads and rights management using adaptive pricing with costs offset by viewing ads, Google serving ads based upon user physical activity. Hulu wants to allow users to control advertising. Facebook, Yahoo and many others have all published patents related to managing ad inventory. The way ads are served up, priced and managed will be much more dynamic and these companies can lock down their proprietary ways of doing it.
• Cybersecurity and Privacy. Not surprisingly, this is a continuing trend by big tech companies. Intel has a patent in process for lawful interception for device to device communication. Facebook has filings related to managing privacy settings and authenticating users via devices, Amazon is also looking for new ways to authenticate users and most of the big tech companies all had filings related to identifying unauthorized users, cross platform authentication and greater technology to improve security settings and management of privacy.
What does this all mean? The companies I mentioned already control much of the data about all of us and many control the devices we use to access the internet whether it’s via traditional desktop search, mobile and the internet of things or social media platforms. As they converge the ability to recognize our voices or biometrics with predictive behavior and tools to price products and ads dynamically, as well as the ability to process payment digitally, the whole system could be in for a shift.
When I look at this patent data from a macro level a big transition I see coming is the continued evolution to mobile, wearables and the internet of things like homes, cars, and the like – powered by voice recognition and predictive behavior. The patents filed in these areas show a clear trend to change the way companies engage with us in the future. This will have a trickle down impact into SEO – what will be optimized in the future may be different than what exists today.
If social media alongside hardware companies migrate to voice recognition and predictive behaviors, will the concept of SEO change dramatically because now it is not responding to what people type into a search bar, but how they speak to Siri or whatever other personal attendant is created for us? Looking at these patents, understanding what they are doing and how they are doing it, can provide guidance to what could change in the future. If we use this as a point of making assumptions about the future, we can make smarter decisions about how we plan for ebbs and flows in an SEO driven business.
If you want to track patents, Google Patents provides a free service and a fairly intuitive approach, but not analytics – that’s up to you. Google’s service also includes international fillings (though the rules vary across jurisdictions). The USPTO is the direct access database for all patents filed in the U.S. and does allow for some filtering and advanced search capabilities. I use Black Hills Technology to build out specific portfolios and track key words and categories, but I pay a license fee to access that system and analyze patent filings at a much deeper level than what the free software allows.
While patents as a single source of data are not going to give away the secret sauce of SEO in the future, it’s an important tool to understand what companies are investing in and what could be the future of digital.